I recently had the chance to talk with Amanda Duffy, a former professional player who is now the President of Louisville City FC. We spoke about how she became involved with the club, the success of the club in such a short amount of time, and her opinions on the possibility of an NWSL team for Louisville in the future.
Backline Soccer: First and foremost, congratulations on such a successful start for Louisville City.
Amanda Duffy: Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a great start so far. Have you been to a game yet?
BS: I have not been able to make it back for a game. Every time I go back to visit, it has been in the offseason, but I have been following you guys since your inception, and I know a few diehard fans who have told me the atmosphere is just insane.
AD: It is. It’s been pretty neat. I’m just thankful and appreciative that I’ve been a part of it from essentially day one, before we ever played our first game. To know how far the fan base has come from back in the fall/winter of 2014, when it was this idea that people couldn’t get their head around. Like, they got pro sports and pro soccer, but they didn’t necessarily understand what the USL was and they definitely didn’t understand playing soccer in a baseball stadium. They didn’t know how that was going to look or feel. And for most, at least from my standpoint, the supporter groups have created this environment that is, in my opinion if not the best, one of the best systems in our league. I think even if you pull NASL into the picture, I think we just present an environment that is pretty special. I think that as the locals come to Slugger Field – pretty much everyone has been to a baseball game there – they come with an expectation. At least in the first year, people had obviously heard that it was different than baseball, but it was an eye-opening experience to them. It was very engaging to see all of it sort of evolve over the last two years.
BS: Oh of course. So, first of all, how did you get involved with Louisville City?
AD: Well, I worked at USL prior to coming to Louisville. I had been there about 7 ½ years. When I first got to the USL I was in a position – well I stopped playing in 2006 – and in 2007 I got to the USL. I had done an internship [with the USL] to finish my master’s, so I had already made some connections. When I finished playing, I reached back out and said, “Okay I’m ready to start doing real work.” The USL was in the process of expanding its headquarters and operation and personnel, so I started my first year in a kind of “catch all” position. I was working with the pro league, the adult amateur league, helping a little bit with registration, helping a little bit with our referee education … So it was just a catch all. At the time, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I had gone back thinking and hoping that I wanted to be a part of the women’s game. But in hindsight now, I’m so appreciative of that because it educated me on all areas of the game. And as I continue to move through different areas of the USL, I’m just better educated by all of it. So, that position morphed into Director of Operations for USL Pro, which at the time was USL First Division and USL Second Division before the group split and NASL was formed. So, I was part of the operations with the pro league at the time, and when the leagues came together after the group split that did form NASL … We put USL I and USL II together to form USL Pro. It was at that time that I transitioned over to the women’s side with the W-League and I became Senior Director of the W-League. I spent the next three years there, overseeing the women’s strategic direction and growth on that side. So then at that point in 2014, Louisville City was announced in June. I knew I had a great relationship with Phil Rawlins and Orlando City and they had ownership in this franchise, since it was a transfer franchise from Orlando City. So with that connection and then a second connection with the first president, my predecessor John Bucholtz. He had worked for a couple of different USL Pro teams while I was at the league, so he was someone that I had worked with from a league-team type relationship and when he was named president here, that was just another sort of warm relationship that made me comfortable in entertaining the idea of considering an opportunity here when they reached out. So, I actually became as the vice president of operations in 2014 and then December of that year there was a change in the leadership. I was moved into the GM role and a year later named president of the club.
BS: Wow. That’s amazing.
AD: It is amazing. It’s one of those things that when you’re in it every day, you don’t really take that step back and look at it from the outside in and realize, you know not just me, but what everyone here has really accomplished in such a short period of time. And for me I came into this side thinking at that point that my professional experience had been all on the league side. I went from player to working in the league headquarters. I wanted to get more experience working in a team front office. Just to have a better understanding of everything. I certainly needed to and certainly wanted to and I also just like working for a team. I’m a competitor. I’m an athlete. And so in a league position you come from a very neutral position. Whereas with a team right now, you know, I’m fighting for this team and this organization. Well, not necessarily fighting, but speaking for and pushing this one organization. Which is different and it’s neat to be in that position.
BS: Right. On the topic of this specific team in Louisville … What do you think makes this team thrive in Louisville? And also, why do you think Louisville is such an amazing soccer city to facilitate this team?
AD: Well I think one would be, we’ve put a competitive team on the field from season one. Obviously, we are just in our second season right now. We just have been competitive from our very first game. We have a great head coach, we have a great coaching staff, great players. Our coaching staff have put in countless hours in terms of finding the right mix of talent and personality and character that all blend well and nicely to make sure that we have competitors on the field and people that are going to represent the team and get into the community in a way that is going to represent the club in the right way. I think putting a competitive team on the field right away was important and has helped us. Part of that, was that we sort of had this expectation because this franchise was a transfer from Orlando City. The success that club had in USL was obviously impressive. For that franchise to move here, we already had a high bar that was set and had an expectation of what we wanted to do and accomplish and we have done that so far in the first year and a half that we have been competing. I also think this is a unique market. It’s not one that I’m from but I’ve kind of learned this as I go … It’s a market that I feel has wanted something more. It’s very much a college town and you could even say that it’s a college state with the two major universities [University of Louisville and University of Kentucky]. But, I do feel like there is a want and a need for something more than just the university athletics. And with soccer, it introduces an avenue for people to support something that has nothing to do with college athletics. It’s in the neutral ground of pro sports. We are in the city. Our players are here under contract with us. They are based here. They live here nine months out of the year. We are engaged in this city and the community. We are bringing a different type of entertainment that the city has wanted at a professional level but hasn’t had in a long time.
BS: Yes. That is one of the reason why I think Louisville would make a great city for an NWSL team. I think the lack of pro teams in Louisville brings a much more concentrated and less saturated market in any team. And since the NWSL is looking to expand to 14 teams in the next 2-3 years, I feel like Louisville is the city that no one is really talking about, but was really a perfect market for a new team. Especially judging by the success of Louisville City.
BS: Now switching over to more of the women’s soccer side of things. Would you agree with me that Louisville would be a good place for an NWSL expansion team?
AD: I do think that this is a city where the support for the club would go beyond just our men’s professional team. I think our supporters are supporting the club and it just happens to be that right now we only have the men’s pro team, but we are building an environment and relationships with the community and with the city that the club is going to represent more. Our fans will support more than just the pro team when we are in the right position to expand our operation. Obviously right now, we are playing in a baseball stadium. The dates that we have, I mean, we just have such limited dates with the pro team, that it is not even realistic to start thinking about or even have a conversation about bringing any other team, whether its an NWSL team or a U-23 team. It’s not realistic because we don’t have a place to play. But, we’ve started that conversation with the stadium – a soccer specific stadium – recently. I’m not sure if you saw, but a study came out that supported the need and the readiness to build a soccer specific stadium here in Louisville. So it’s now sorta back on us to make that happen. And as that conversation progresses and we know the direction, obviously that there is a stadium, you know, filling that with the 20 games for the men’s pro team, then we are going to need to look to find other avenues to bring events to that stadium. Then, that would be a perfect opportunity to start having a conversation about an NWSL team or other teams that could utilize the stadium that that it’s not sitting empty.
BS: Right. Because right now you guys are, if I’m not mistaken, you guys are selling out almost every home game correct?
AD: Well, when the team was announced the ownership said that the official capacity is going to be 8,000. The official capacity of Slugger Field is 13,100 approximately. When we first started our ticket sales all of the outfield [was unavailable]. We weren’t selling tickets out there because we thought, you know, those are just terrible seats and you aren’t going to be able to see the game and you’re going to be too far away. But after our first game we realized that those were some of the best seats in the stadium. So for us right now, we have access to all 13,000 and we want to consider a sell-out that 13,000 mark. But, that is where the 8,000 number comes from which we have surpassed many times this year.
BS: That makes so much more sense, because I saw that your highest attendance this year was over 10,000 and I was just like, “That is so insane, how?”
AD: Yeah, that is where the 8,000 number comes from.
BS: Okay. Got it. So, just from your experience being the president of a team in Louisville, what are some hurdles you think there would be – obviously, in the future, if you had a new stadium – in sustaining a professional women’s team in the Louisville community?
AD: In my opinion – and this comes from running the W-League at the USL for the years that I did, and playing a year in Sweden – I got to see a different structure of women’s soccer. It was just one club. You had men’s team and the women’s team and the youth underneath it. It’s not the exact European model, but it was a full developmental system from youth all the way up to a pro team. And in seeing that I saw how it corresponded with fans of the club coming out to support all genders and levels. It was a different support system, versus here where you go to support a specific men’s team. And if it is just an independent women’s team, aren’t they getting the same level of support. In my opinion, having the infrastructure of an existing men’s professional club lends itself better to a successful women’s professional team. Mostly because you have more of an infrastructure to support women’s teams because you have more of the revenue sources coming in. Because when you’re talking about a women’s pro team on its own, it’s a lot harder for us because people are going to support the crest, they’re going to support Louisville City, and if a women’s pro team is a part of that then I think our fans can come in and support that. We have the front office infrastructure to really push our message and push the players and give them an identity for a women’s pro team in the same way that we can push a men’s pro team all representing “the crest” if you would. So I think for me, an important part of the growth of the women’s team is to really utilize the infrastructure that exists with men’s professional teams, just because you have a more stable environment to work out of.
BS: I totally agree with you. I mean, the top three teams in attendance in the NWSL are the three teams who are partnered with an MLS team.
BS: And even if you just think about the player and their willingness to go to to clubs that already have top facilities and staff and things that you might not be able to acquire having an independent team and so on and so forth. So, yes, I agree with you there.
BS: So, my last question is, hypothetically, in the future, if you had to make a case on why an NWSL team should come to Louisville – if it was solely in your hands – what would a short pitch for the city be?
AD: Well it’s not so much a pitch, I think we have to look at our business and make sure the business that we are today is a stable one. Adding more programming and stuff to our business operation, we need to make sense to ultimately build stability and viability for the long term part of it.
BS: Of course.
AD: And I think the stadium is such a key piece to that entire conversation. Because we are going to look, assuming that we continue to move forward, and if in several years we are playing in our own stadium in Louisville, we are going to need to look to find other events and other opportunities to fill dates for the stadium. And I think from that business standpoint and if we are still in a healthy business state, growing and expanding goes underneath the men’s pro team and going into the women’s side. I think it will make sense for us to further engage in the community and as a professional soccer organization to have both genders represented and fill in underneath with a development structure to feed into those pro teams.